At WrestleMania 31 this weekend, the entire Divas division will be compressed into a single tag match with no payoff or forward motion for any of its competitors. This bag of crumbs callously offered to long-suffering believers in women’s wrestling in America will purposely underwhelm in the undercard, making assured shit show stoppers Sting vs Triple H and Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns seem like a stumbling attempt to provide an earnest near-miss of what the WWE audiences actually want.
WWE has gotten hip to the social media, but the overwrought hashtags belie veritable tears in the veneer modernity.
A combined age of 167 in your upper card is not progress. Putting 6 of your 8 wrestlers of color on the pre-show is not progress. Shoehorning women into a tag match whose booking goes contrary to the storylines of the wrestlers involved is not a victory lap for diversity and “reaching the people”. It is a stumbling, begrudged forced march into the dark ages of tone deafness that has sunk the industry again and again.
In 1993, one week after Hulk Hogan won the then-WWF title in a main event he wasn’t booked in, Manami Toyota, Toshiyo Yamada, Mayumi Ozaki, and Dynamite Kansai put on a women’s tag match in Osaka that broke the gender barrier like a shoot kick to the face behind the referee’s back, earning the first Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Match of the Year for women in the sport.
When brought up, the match is often weighed down by hobbyist wrestling historians as an example of how far wrestling had fallen in that time. And, for real: WWF had shit every bed at the Sleep Train with their non-televised title changes, mismanaged younger talent, and letting Hogan job to a fireball.
But this was the same year that Shane Douglas won and then rebuked the NWA Heavyweight Championship to announce the formation of Extreme Championship Wrestling. AAA put on their first TripleMania and NJPW’s Fantastic Story in Tokyo Dome brought in 63,500 attendees.
A bleach-proof blemish in WWE’s history, 1993 was nonetheless a formative year for professional wrestling across the world.
This match is not the low hanging fruit of an industry in decline. It is, even without the benefit of understanding the commentary, one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport. Full stop; fight me.
To Set the Scene
This match was the second of a trilogy of contests between AJW’s Toyota/Yamada and JWP’s Ozaki/Kansai. While WWF spent the mid 90’s (and really, the whole of their ouevre as an organization) pilfering talent, no matter how useless, from their competitors, fans of joshi puroresu (primarily women) witnessed rival promotions kick and scream through a series of wrestling clinics that cinched Japan’s fourth consecutive Match of the Year award.
David McLane struggles to keep a women’s promotion open in America–there are 12 listed-as-active women’s promotions in Japan, notwithstanding women who appear on the more mainstream “men’s” promotions. The competition in Japan is mayhaps more collectivist than individualist–but it is yet, as Dynamite Kansai’s face will attest, strong style stiff.
Butch/Femme Transcends Culture
In the 90’s, WWF was balls deep in the photocopier. From The Godwinns to the Bashams–Vince’s godless obsession with taking one wrestler’s character and cloning it to form a tag team knows no reproach. Some of the company’s worst matches (The Brothers of Destruction vs KroniK comes to mind) are a result of turning the mirror inward.
I am a lifelong devotee to femme for femme–for me, the joy of women’s sexuality comes from mutual defacing of ornament. The simultaneous snapping of garters and smearing of eyeshadow on bare chests, made sweaty through emphatic friction.
But it’s hard to tell a compelling cooperative fiction when everyone’s telling the same personal story. As such, I concede to the elegant and dynamic external mirroring in this match. Manami Toyota, dressed like an ice princess fronting a pop group, and Toshiyo Yamada, a cold fury of tomboy prowess, find their equals in Mayumi Ozaki, the blood goddess in smearless lipstick and her muscle Dynamite Kansai, who is too busy kicking the corner as hard as she can during the opening announcements to note how everyone else is dressed.
It’s more than a mere bout–this match is a mirror melee, teams from two worlds, a dire display of doppelganger destruction.
Manami and Mayumi criss-cross the canvas with high-flying fury. Dynamite and Toshiyo punctuate and dictate a steady pace with sharp suplexes, impressive submissions and a lot, I mean a lot, of shoot kicks to the face.
The match is wrestled with a mutual, fervent urgency. Partners run, full sprint, to break up submissions with stiff kicks to the face before the hold can even be locked on. Kansai, the largest and strongest of the four, is constantly besieged by alternating dropkicks and aerial attacks by both opponents.
We all get cool on hot tags over time, but sometimes sticking to the script of ring psychology 101 can be the basis for unique, interesting matches. The story of this match sets Dynamite as the largest and strongest–Toyota and Yamada constantly cut her off from building the momentum for the great big beatdown we’re accustomed to seeing, though flipped– this match gleefully reverts traditional heel/face dynamics. Following the script doesn’t prohibit cutting and pasting it to make something new.
If the kicks and sublime dives to the outside of this match are the bread, the submissions are the butter. Ozaki fidgets in trying to lock on a modified STF/Dragon Sleeper on Toyota. Kansai can be seen looking up at the lights, struggling to hold a thrashing Toyota in a chicken-wing, fighting for every second of relief her lungs can grab. Yamada locks Kansai in a modified half-crab just a couple of feet in front of Ozaki, as if daring her to get in the ring. Every rest hold seems frantic, erratic, fought for. There’s no pillow talk–every hold could be a fall.
A Brief Political Aside
Challenging the audience on their desires and motivations is not only effective storytelling (used in this case to conflate booking and ring psychology), it is imperative. You want the good guy/girl to win–but is it worth them resorting to heelish tactics? Will you love a tag team even after they split and compete with each other? Are you behind Shawn Michaels enough to watch him knowingly end Ric Flair’s career?
Many a flame has been lit over what responsibility, if any, Vince McMahon actually has to his audience. Is he obligated to give the fans what they want, what they clatter for on social media and shout over his scheduled matches to demand? Or is letting your consumer dictate your product bad business, or even extortion?
Toyota and Yamada have a definite emotional homefield advantage–yet Dynamite Kansai gets a very emphatic chant from the audience early on in the match. Were these fans of the rival promotion, JWP? Were they won over by Kansai’s resolve? Did they concede that, if Kansai was able to score a pin so early in the contest, that investing in the hometown heroines was futile?
This match confronts the audience, with action, with emotion, with questions of their loyalty. This engagement demonstrates a respect for the audience, for their time, presence, and investment. The clamoring crescendo of the audience, in tune with every shoot kick and near-fall, gives this energy back to the performers. A wrestler cannot live on wristlocks alone. A disengaged–or worse, enraged–audience can stretch time like Einstein, every second expanding with excruciating tedium.
Alternatively, Vince McMahon is bereft of respect for his consumer. He books the matches he wants to see. He castigates; you like what he tells you you like. You just can’t hear his dictations over the shower of shrill and angry boos, derision so unanimous it makes corpses of veterans and commentators alike. Watching a WWE program is like scheduling when you’re going to watch your neighbors get upset with each other on your front lawn.
Sit, simmer, settle: this is not an appeal of authority. I don’t mean to suggest that things are good are bad at the behest of armchair bookers and mullet mavens like Dave Meltzer, whose antipathy for womens wrestling is fairly developed.
There’s a finite curvature to this: promoters who don’t like women’s wrestling under develop their talent and put them in underwhelming matches so the crowd’s reactions will reinforce their prejudice.
This match is not an error in the system but rather evidence that Divas and Knockouts, if given more than “a chance”, can and will excel.
2 out of 3 Ain’t Bad
The ⅔ falls formula is scarce in American wrestling, and for fair reason: it doesn’t come with a surprise. The matches almost always go to 3 falls, and you can easily identify when the face will win by how rushed the heel’s first fall is–get it out of the way so we can have the scheduled triumphant comeback.
Yamada is pinned in the first 12 seconds. It’s treated as a genuine misstep on Yamada, allowing Kansai to nail her with a crucifix slam for the pin. She wallows a bit in a post-KO haze, a spot she repeats in the middle, after Kansai delivers a series of heavy shoot kicks.
Separating the match into three falls affords the wrestlers the rest they don’t get mid-submission. The effect of athletic theatrics–corner women pouring water on dazed wrestlers as their partners gently slap them to their senses–makes an offer to the audience: we’re doing our part, so please, take this seriously. Those details help set up the massive pops for the double diving suicide planchas, and Toyota dropping Kansai off the apron onto the floor. The sincerity is returned, in kind, with interest.
Ozaki clutching a downed Kansai, almost in tears, as they approach the third and final pin to settle the match, realizing that her private powerhouse is in fact fallible is a PhD dissertation in raw, unbridled ring psychology, the sort you rarely see in men’s competition.
The Hard Sell
Toshiyo Yamada is the will of the story. She isn’t “good guy invincible”–she gets the shit beat out of her, and then back into her, by the larger and more aggressive Dynamite Kansai. But she doesn’t stay down (for long). She rises, and rises, and rises to take the fight back to Kansai, delivering it by foot. I’m unsure if my verbiage is adequate in expounding just how many hard as fuck kicks to the face and back there is in this match, mostly traded between Yamada and Kansai. When she plants a slick northern lights suplex on her counterpart, the audience swells with well-earned awe. For like, 99 percent of other wrestlers, being pinned in the first 12 seconds of a match would be the wistful end of a resume. For Yamada it is a catalyst, a seed that flourishes into fearless footwork and defiant displays of mat finesse.
Manami Toyota is the passion. She has an instinctive inclination for the ropes–her suicide tope to Mayumi Ozaki at ringside is seamless, even after the most intrusive inspections. The moonsault and missile dropkick are her mother tongue. The feathers of her outfit are constantly coming off with every step, like a star burning recklessly in the face of entropy. The camera staff have a hard time keeping up with her–she often flies into frame, knocking others out of it.
Dynamite Kansai is the conflict. Her stoicism belies a desire to defeat, even over winning. She doesn’t cover Yamada after knocking her unconscious in the corner–she stands, waiting for her come to, to resume. She seems almost amused when Toyota bridges out of a pin–the game remains afoot. A sweep kick and ankle lock costs her nothing; the vertical lingering before a piledriver, the stomp to the back of her opponent’s head mid-sharpshooter, those are for her. She stares through an arena of women gasping at her brutality, as if waiting for them to collect themselves and come back for more.
Mayumi Ozaki is the emotion. An arena of wrestling fans and a broadcast team seem just barely a match for her screams of concern and encouragement for Kansai. When her partner is locked in a submission, she nearly falls into the ring trying to reach out for her hand. There is a simmering spite that percolates behind the crooked neck of Manami Toyota; when Ozaki is not telegraphing her dropkicks with blood-summoning screams, she is pursing her lips as hard as she can, pulling on Toyota so hard it contorts and in some cases breaks the submission hold she started. Yamada and Kansai’s measured and educated kicks do not find kin in Ozaki’s frantic stomping–just shut up, Manami, shut up and die. Her malice and frustration is tempered only by the genuine, almost desperate affection she has for her partner. It has been argued that Yamada is the star of the match–Ozaki undeniably sold the whole constellation.
(Let bias be bygones: it’s no secret Mayumi Ozaki is my favorite wrestler.)
Evil Will Prevail aka Spoilers
Yamada and Toyota are a solid, well coordinated team, but their confidence in each other is their undoing. Yamada holds Kansai on the outside, hoping Toyota can score the pinfall on Ozaki–she can’t seal the deal, and Yamada’s do-or-die quarantine is broken. Kansai kicks her to the ground, and knocks Manami Toyota out from behind as she sets Ozaki up for a suplex. Toyota and Yamada have been dabbling in heelery and hubris throughout the match, and it burns them. Is it desperation or is it revenge that compels Yamada to make Kansai watch as her partner is pinned by Toyota–and are we, the audience, meant to pity her penance for needling a woman who’d already knocked her unconscious twice in one match?
People have no grasp of what they do. Once Kansai gets back in the ring, the writing is etched on the wall, with Manami Toyota’s pile of busted bones.
She takes two doomsday devices and is pinned by a gleeful Mayumi Ozaki. Two JWP wrestlers stomped and screamed their way through an AJW event and limped out as the WWWA Tag Team Champions.
CHIKARA defended their preference for tag matches by explaining a work of art had more potential the more colors you had to your palette. A number of cultural factors–attempts to imitate the legitimacy of MMA, American individualism, whatever yet unnamed affliction compels the mind of Vince Russo–have effectively devalued tag team wrestling in America. I am compelled to seek exceptional wrestling abroad not (solely) as an exercise in unpatriotic non-conformity, but also to indulge in kinetic, collaborative storytelling that is rife in puroresu and lucha libre.
1993 was a good year for stories. Bret Hart’s rise was yielded by the evil foreigner Yokozuna, and then almost wholly arrested by Hulk Hogan stealing his rematch and taking the title to Japan to fight Great Muta. CMLL’s monopoly on lucha was assertively disrupted by AAA. The one guy from Demolition who wasn’t fat or balding got beat up a pair of clowns–and Jim Ross had to narrate the whole fucking debacle on his first appearance with the WWF.
That year’s MotY had a narrative that wasn’t just good by wrestling standards, but fiction as a whole. It transcends the medium–and language. There is 30 minutes of context I am not getting at all; the agony and desperation and fury suffer no loss of clarity for it.
I show this match to anyone who is interested in getting into wrestling and doesn’t know where to start (such as you, perhaps). Unguided, you will be inundated with oppressive humor, unrepentant homophobia and an unchecked misogyny straight out from the nightmares of Gloria Steinem.
Let this lesson linger: women can, if given more than “a chance” can do more than “share the spotlight”.
Also, it’s so rare to see heels win clean, even for titles.
They drop the titles back to Toyota and Yamada at their next encounter, though.
Kansai they didn’t try.